An Overview of Mammary Duct Ectasia

This noncancerous breast condition affects the milk ducts

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Breast issues can be stressful. A variety of conditions can arise in breasts, including mammary duct ectasia. Also called periductal ectasia or duct ectasia, this is a benign (noncancerous) breast condition in which the milk ducts become swollen and clogged.

It’s most common in women who are nearing menopause (marking the time when menstrual periods have stopped for 12 straight months), though it can happen earlier or later, too. It often resolves on its own and does not increase the risk of breast cancer.

This article will review what mammary duct ectasia is, its symptoms, and how it is treated.

mammary duct ectasia
Verywell / Emily Roberts

Symptoms

Mammary duct ectasia often causes no symptoms and is only discovered when another breast problem requires a biopsy (removing a sample of tissue for testing in a lab).

When symptoms do occur, they can be worrisome, as some mimic the symptoms of breast cancer.

Symptoms can include redness and pain in the nipple and surrounding area, as well as a discharge that can be various colors, including black or red. Other symptoms can include:

  • A small lump just under the nipple
  • Tenderness/irritation of the nipple and areola
  • Pink or red color to the nipple and areola
  • Thick nipple discharge that is often sticky and dark green or black, though it may also be yellow, white, clear, or even bloody
  • Nipple may retract (pull inward)

A bacterial infection called mastitis also may develop in the milk duct, causing breast tenderness, inflammation, and fever with or without chills.

Persistent and untreated duct ectasia could lead to the formation of an abscess, a collection of pus in your breast tissue, that may need to be drained.

Causes

Duct ectasia results from the normal changes that occur in breast tissues around menopause. The ducts become shorter and wider, and their walls thicken, resulting in a buildup of fluid and increasing their chances of becoming clogged.

Nipple inversion, sometimes due to an underlying breast cancer, can also sometimes cause duct ectasia.

Risk factors for mammary duct ectasia include being female, having obesity, having a history of lactation (breastfeeding), and smoking. Although it is most common in women entering menopause, it can develop in young children and older adults, as well. It sometimes occurs in men, but this is uncommon.

Diagnosis

Talk to your healthcare provider if you have symptoms of mammary duct ectasia. They may be able to diagnose the condition by performing a physical exam, but additional tests may be required. A breast ultrasound can often show the dilated breast ducts, though a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan is sometimes needed for an in-depth view. Mammography can show calcifications in the region.

When the diagnosis is uncertain, an excisional biopsy is required. A pathologist looks at the sample obtained during the procedure under a microscope to make sure there's no evidence of cancerous cells.

Treatment

Most of the time, mammary duct ectasia resolves without any treatment. Self-care measures like applying warm compresses to your nipple and wearing a supportive bra can help reduce discomfort. If there's evidence of an infection, antibiotics will be prescribed.

It's important to not squeeze the area to increase discharge, as this can increase inflammation and the chance of an infection developing.

If symptoms don't resolve, surgery may be done to disconnect and remove the duct. Known as Hadfield's operation, the procedure will take about 30 minutes and is usually done under general anesthesia through a tiny incision at the edge of your areola. This removal of a single duct will not affect your ability to breastfeed.

Summary

Mammary duct ectasia can be concerning, but it usually gets better on its own. If it doesn't, there are home remedies and, if needed, surgery, to treat it. If you notice any of the symptoms, call your doctor for an appointment to be evaluated. Knowing what may be going on can put you at ease and allow you to treat and manage it at home, per your provider's instructions.

A Word From Verywell

Mammary duct ectasia can be uncomfortable, but, fortunately, it's not associated with an increased risk of breast cancer or other complications. Although you may not notice any symptoms at first, when symptoms do occur, they can resemble other conditions, which need to be ruled out. Talk to your healthcare provider about any signs of an infection or an abscess, such as increased pain or a fever.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can mammary duct ectasia become cancerous if left untreated?

    No, it does not turn into cancer or increase your risk of breast cancer. If left untreated and it doesn't resolve, it may continue to cause discomfort and symptoms and surgery may be necessary.

  • How does mammary duct ectasia affect your ability to breastfeed?

    The affected duct will become clogged, blocking milk from passing through. Even if the duct is removed through surgery, it will not impair your ability to breastfeed.

  • How long does it take a blocked duct to clear?

    Blocked milk ducts typically take a day or two to clear, but each person is different. If you've seen your healthcare provider and tried home remedies to no avail, call your provider and let them know.

  • Will a clogged milk duct eventually dry up?

    If you are breastfeeding, a clogged milk duct can lead to an infection called mastitis. If the duct does not clear in a day or two, you should see your healthcare provider. The time it takes for your milk to dry up if you stop breastfeeding can vary.

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Cancer Society. Duct Ectasia.

  2. Boakes E, Woods A, Johnson N, Kadoglou N. Breast Infection: A Review of Diagnosis and Management PracticesEur J Breast Health. 2018;14(3):136–143. doi:10.5152/ejbh.2018.3871

  3. Mohammed AA. Mammary duct ectasia in adult females; risk factors for the disease, a case control study. Ann Med Surg (Lond). 2021;62:140-144. doi:10.1016/j.amsu.2021.01.023

  4. Song L, Li L, Liu B, et al. Diagnostic evaluations of ultrasound and magnetic resonance imaging in mammary duct ectasia and breast cancerOncol Lett. 2018;15(2):1698–1706. doi:10.3892/ol.2017.7514

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Originally written by
Pam Stephan
Pam Stephan is a breast cancer survivor.
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